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Book burning, biblioclasm or libricide is the practice of destroying, often ceremoniously, books or other written material and media. In modern times, other forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs have also been ceremoniously burned, torched, or shredded. The practice, usually carried out in public, is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material.

Some particular cases of book burning are long and traumatically remembered - because the books destroyed were irreplaceable and their loss constituted a severe damage to cultural heritage, and/or because this instance of book burning has become emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime. Such were the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the obliteration of the Library of Baghdad, the burning of books and burying of scholars under China's Qin Dynasty, the destruction of Aztec codices by Spanish conquistadors and priests, and the Nazi book burnings of Jewish literature.

Although one motivation for book burning may be censorship, it is in most cases an act of displaying severe displeasure, hatred, or contempt for the book's contents or author, or to attract attention for the outrage perceived by those who highly appreciate the book and its content. For example, the burning of Beatles records after a remark by John Lennon concerning Jesus Christ, the destruction of the Sarajevo National Library, and the 2010 Qur'an-burning controversy.

Historical backgroundEdit

File:Quema de libros.jpg
File:Yad Vashem Books burned by Nazis by David Shankbone.jpg

From China's 3rd century BC Qin Dynasty to the present day, the burning of books has a long history as a tool wielded by authorities both secular and religious, in efforts to suppress dissenting or heretical views that are perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order.

When books are ordered collected by the authorities and disposed of in private, it may not be book burning, strictly speaking — but the destruction of cultural and intellectual heritage is the same.

According to scholar Elaine Pagels, "In AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria… issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as 'acceptable' even 'canonical' — a list that constitutes the present 'New Testament'".(Citation needed) Although Pagels cites Athanasius's Paschal letter (letter 39) for 367 AD, there is no order for monks to destroy heretical works contained in that letter.[1] Thus, heretical texts do not turn up as palimpsests, washed clean and overwritten, as pagan ones do; many early Christian texts have been as thoroughly "lost" as if they had been publicly burnt.

Nalanda, an ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India was sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, sacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the monks from the site. (Citation needed)

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer Heinrich Heine — referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, during the Spanish Inquisition — wrote, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." ("Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.")(Citation needed)

Over a century later, Heine's books were among the thousands of volumes that were torched by the Nazis in Berlin's Opernplatz.(Citation needed)


Anthony Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873, inscribed book burning on its seal, as a worthy goal to be achieved (see illustration at right). Comstock's total accomplishment in a long and influential career is estimated to have been the destruction of some 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing such 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. All of this material was defined as "lewd" by Comstock's very broad definition of the term — which he and his associates successfully lobbied the United States Congress to incorporate in the Comstock Law.(Citation needed)

In the 1950s several books by William Reich were ordered to be burned in the U.S. under judicial orders.(Citation needed)

The Ray Bradbury novel Fahrenheit 451 is about a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning. In Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, the euphemistically-called "memory hole" is used to burn any book or written text which is inconvenient to the regime, and there is mention of "the total destruction of all books published before 1960".(Citation needed)

The advent of the digital age has resulted in an immense collection of written work being catalogued exclusively or primarily in digital form. The intentional deletion or removal of these works has been often referred to as a new form of book burning.(Citation needed)

Some supporters have celebrated book burning cases in art and other media. Such is the bas-relief by Giovanni Battista Maini of The Burning of Heretical Books over a side door on the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, which depicts the burning of 'heretical' books as a triumph of righteousness.[2]

Notable book burningsEdit

Main article: List of book burning incidents

Notable unintentional burningsEdit

Old St Paul's Cathedral, London, 1666Edit

In 1666, as the Great Fire of London advanced, many booksellers who had stores in London put their books in Old St Paul's Cathedral's stone-lined crypt for safety. But as the cathedral burned falling heavy masonry broke through into the crypt and let the fire in and all the books burned. A contemporary description said that was the biggest burning of books since the burning of the Alexandria Library.(Citation needed)

German bombing of the British MuseumEdit

During the London Blitz in the Second World War, the British Museum was bombed on 23 September 1940 and a small bomb fell on the Gallery where the book collection was stored. It was not, in this case, a specific German intention to burn books. However, 124 volumes were completely destroyed, a further 304 were damaged beyond repair, and many others required substantial restoration.

Burnt by its authorEdit

  • The notable Hassidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is reported to have written a book which he himself burned in 1808. His followers, up to the present, mourn "The Burned Book" and seek in their Rabbi's surviving writings for clues as to what the lost volume contained and why it was destroyed (see [5]).
  • Carlo Goldoni is known to have burned his first play, a tragedy called Amalasunta, when encountering unfavorable criticism.
  • Joe Shuster, who together with Jerry Siegel created the fictional superhero Superman, in 1933 burned the first Superman story when under the impression that it would not find a publisher - a loss still mourned by numerous Superman fans.(Citation needed)

Narrow escapesEdit

Aeneid, 19 BCEdit

Main article: Aeneid#Virgil's death and editing of the Aeneid

When Virgil died, he left instructions that his manuscript of the Aeneid was to be burnt, as it was a draft version with uncorrected faults and not a final version for release; however, this instruction was ignored.

Franz Kafka's writingsEdit

Before his death, Franz Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me ... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread."[3] Brod overrode Kafka's wishes, believing that Kafka had given these directions to him specifically, because Kafka knew he would not honour them — Brod had told him as much. Had Brod carried out Kafka's instructions, virtually the whole of Kafka's work - except for a few short stories published in his lifetime - would have been lost forever. Most critics, at the time and up to the present, justify Brod's decision.

In literature and filmEdit

Russian literatureEdit

  • A much-quoted line in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is "manuscripts don't burn" (Russian: рукописи не горят). "The Master", a major protagonist in the book, is a writer who is plagued by both his own mental problems and the oppression of Stalin's regime in 1930s Moscow. He burns his treasured manuscript in an effort to hide it from the Soviet authorities and cleanse his own mind from the troubles the work has brought him. The character Woland (a mysterious magician who is in fact Satan) later gives the manuscript back to him, saying, "Didn't you know that manuscripts don't burn?" There is an autobiographical element reflected in the Master's character here, as Bulgakov in fact burned an early copy of The Master and Margarita for much the same reasons.

Romance literatureEdit

  • The first part of Don Quixote has a scene in which the priest and the housekeeper of the eponymous knight go through the chivalry books that have turned him mad. In a kind of auto de fe, they burn most of them. The comments of the priest express the literary tastes of the author, though he offers some sharp criticisms of Cervantes' works as well. It is notable that he saves Tirant lo Blanc.
  • At the conclusion of the novel "Auto da Fe" by Nobel-Prize winner Elias Canetti, the bibliophile protagonist immolates himself on a pile of his own library.

Oriental literatureEdit

  • The Japanese novel Toshokan Sensou is about the conflict between two military organizations after the Japanese government passed a law that allows the censorship of any media deemed to be potentially harmful to Japanese society, including book burning.

English and American literatureEdit

  • The short story "Earth's Holocaust" from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse, is about a society that burns everything that it finds offensive, including its literature.
  • In Part II of the play Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (the protagonist) burns a copy of the Qur'an after having conquered Asia Minor and Egypt. His book-burning and declaration of independence from any deity leads to his fatal illness, and subsequently the end of the play.
  • In Anne of Green Gables, Anne watches in horror as her caretaker burns her book containing the poem "Lady of Shallot" as punishment for reading instead of doing her chores.
  • In the introduction of the 1967 Simon and Schuster book club edition of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury implies that the Nazi book burnings drove him to write the short story "The Fireman" which was the precursor along with the foundation for his novel Fahrenheit 451 (451 °F being the temperature at which paper autoignites. Bradbury chose Fahrenheit instead, as it sounded better.), stating, "It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh." (Citation needed)

Film and televisionEdit

  • In one episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson sees a bookmobile being driven by Reverend Lovejoy, however the letters behind a tree reveal that it actually reads Book-Burning-Mobile.
  • In one episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, in order to prevent Edward from getting information on the Philosopher's Stone, the homunculi burn down one section of the library.
  • In the Myst series of computer games and books, the only way to destroy the link to an Age is to destroy its Descriptive Book, usually by burning it.
  • In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones journeys to Berlin in order to retrieve his father's journal, which gives information about finding the Holy Grail. He retrieves it during a Nazi book burning rally (although it was not targeted for burning itself), where it is inadvertently signed by Hitler himself. At another point, his father makes a comment to a Nazi interrogator: "goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them."
  • In the film Pleasantville, the people who are still black-and-white burn all the books in the library to keep people from becoming colored.
  • In the future depicted in Brian Stableford's "The Halcyon Drift", one of the leading planets in the Galaxy is "New Alexandria", whose inhabitants are dedicated to the preservation and extension of knowledge, and are brought up to regard the destruction of books as the most heinous of deeds. Nevertheless, a protagonist agrees to help the Khor-Monsa, an alien species, in destroying books and records of their remote ancestors which were found in a drifting spaceship—since the books contained a shameful secret whose publication might have led to the present Khor-Monsa losing their social status and becoming targets of discrimination.
  • In an episode of Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, the townspeople burn some of the books from Dr. Quinn's library.
  • The Crusade episode "The Needs of Earth" depicts a world that has burned its entire cultural heritage — all art, music, and literature — and hunts the person who has the last remaining copies.
  • The 2002 film Equilibrium depicts a dystopian society which has eliminated human emotion, and burned all cultural influences that can cause emotion.
  • In the 2004 film The Day after Tomorrow, to avoid freezing to death, the main character suggests burning books to survive, much to the horror of two librarians, with the main characters choosing to avoid the wooden furniture, which would have burned hotter and longer, for plot reasons.
  • In the Family Guy episode "Not All Dogs Go to Heaven", Meg takes Brian to the church to burn books on science and evolution, citing them as "harmful to God". Among the burnt books are "On the Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin, "A Brief History of Time", by Stephen Hawking, and a fictional book entitled "Logic for First Graders".
  • In a key scene of the film "Der alte und der junge König"(The Old and the Young King), a German Historical film made under Nazi rule in 1935, King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia is shown throwing into an open fire the beloved French-language books of his son, Crown Prince Friedrich (the future Friedrich II), as well as the Prince's flute. The film - banned after the fall of the Nazis as a piece of propaganda making manipulative use of history - presents this book burning as a positive and necessary act, which was needed in order to "educate" and "toughen up" the young prince, so as to "prepare him for becoming a great ruler".

For another purpose: Guru Granth SahibEdit

In the Sikh religion, any copies of the Guru Granth Sahib which are too badly damaged to be used, and any printer's waste which has any of its text on (see Guru Granth Sahib#Printing), are cremated with a similar ceremony as cremating a deceased man. Such burning is called Agan Bhet.[4][5][6][7]

See alsoEdit

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  1. NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters
  2. Noted in Touring Club Italiano, Roma e Dintorni 1965:344.
  3. Quoted in Publisher's Note to The Castle, Schocken Books.
  4. [1]: A copy damaged in a fire
  5. [2]: 4 copies damaged in New Orleans by the flood caused by Hurricane Katrina
  6. [3]: on the Nicobar Islands after the 2004 tsunami (end of page)
  7. [4] Blog query about an accumulation of download printouts of Sikh sacred text

External linksEdit

Template:Use dmy dates

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